Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Mommy Party; The Daddy Party

Tina Brown often says that the Democratic Party is the caring "Mommy Party," while the Republicans covet being the responsible "Daddy Party," sober and good with money. The Democrats, by contrast, care about the welfare of the least of our citizens, providing a nourishing, safe arena; the Republicans, always and in everything, strengthen the achievers in society, creating wealth, with, oftentimes, all the subtlety of hobnail boots ("...there is no such thing as a free lunch"). Oversimplifications notwithstanding, Brown, as always, has a point. The rhetoric of Republicans -- national security, fiscal discipline, minimal government intervention -- is steeped in patriarchal toughtalk; the rhetoric of Democrats -- education of the young, health care, labor unions, whistleblower protection -- is steeped in what has traditionally been considered issues that are matriarchally important. Both, of course, are necessary pieces of the American equation.

The above photo of President Obama and President Hugo Chavez -- soon to become iconic, at present quite politically risky -- will, no doubt, become a right-wing bete noir next week, festooned with incendiary barbs like "coddling enemies," and "palling around with the terrorists," remarks that are calculated to diminish the President's masculinity (nothing personal), feed the hungry-anxious base, thus curtailing the President's effectiveness as Commander in Chief. Hugo Chavez, of course, ever the typical "Strongman," fell into a classic international macho frisson with President Bush, calling Bush, 43 "el Diablo" at the United Nations. The whole contretemps ultimately led to naught but a coalescence of Americas enemies in Latin America (and beyond) -- led by Chavez.

The pendulum swings. From The NYTimes:

"Cuba is not on the official agenda here; indeed, Cuba, which has been barred from the Organization of American States since 1962, is not even on the guest list. But leaders in the hemisphere have spent months planning to make Cuba an issue here.

"The White House was well aware that if Mr. Obama did not address it head on, the issue would overwhelm the rest of the summit gathering. This week, the president opened the door to the discussions by abandoning longstanding restrictions on the ability of Cuban-Americans to travel freely to the island and send money to relatives there.

"'I know there is a longer journey that must be traveled in overcoming decades of mistrust, but there are critical steps we can take toward a new day,' Mr. Obama said, adding that he was 'prepared to have my administration engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues — from human rights, free speech, and democratic reform to drugs, migration, and economic issues.'

"Mr. Obama’s message was not entirely new; he has said in the past that he was willing to engage with Cuba. But making a public pledge before leaders of 33 other nations, many of whom he had not yet met, gave his words added heft.

"He came here with the aim of reaching out to leaders in a region that felt ignored by the United States during the Bush years. Just as he campaigned on the theme of change when running for the White House, he made change a theme of his speech here, saying: 'I didn’t come here to debate the past. I came here to deal with the future.'

"He said the United States needed to acknowledge long-held suspicions that it has interfered in the affairs of other countries. But, departing from his prepared text, he also said the region’s countries needed to cease their own historic demonization of the United States for everything from economic crises to drug violence.

"'That also means we can’t blame the United States for every problem that arises in the hemisphere,' he said. 'That’s part of the bargain. That’s the old way, and we need a new way.'"

President Bush -- he of the "Daddy Party" -- was terrible at diplomacy. Under his Presidency, the Defense Department overtook State in influence and power, with Rummy and Cheney literally running rings around a hapless Secretary Powell. Powell's power within the Bush inner circle rapidly disintegrated after September 11th, as the country veered abruptly from one of sunny peacetime contentedness to one of a grim, two-front "long, tough slog," governed by the national security-oriented Daddy Party. Donald "Big Daddy" Rumsfeld, who was SecDef for most of the Bush Presidency, famously said when asked about soft power in 2003, "I don’t know what it means." How profoundly meaningful, that sentence. It is not just that the embodiment of hubris and military hard power didn't philosophically agree with the concept of soft power -- he couldn't even define the term.

Which brings The Corsair to Pirates. How does the "Mommy Party" deal with a metaphor of sheer lawless aggression? That Somali pirate episode, if anything, strengthened Obama, made him appear Reaganesque, avenged -- to put it crudely -- the failure of "Operation Restore Hope." Historians of the future may look back to that tense moment -- over Easter weekend, as families keen on studiously avoiding one another, fixated on that welcome distraction of the news -- and see it as a defining moment of his Presidency, one in which the "Daddy Party," and the "Mommy Party" were one (The Corsair sips a peppery cognac). In giving authorization for those Naval SEALs to take those fateful and fatal three shots, President Obama showed: 1) He is committed to the safety and protection of all citizens of the United States (a profoundly masculine positioning), 2) He is capable of violence to protect his own (Also profoundly masculine; this also may give pause to regimes intent on "testing," as Biden, impolitically, predicted), and, finally (and cynically), 3) Obama is capable -- quite controversially -- of violence against the Third World, if pressed (The President, O, loony wingnuts, is not a radical Muslim).

President Obama, being the titular head of the Democratic Party, is congenitally/politically stronger on soft power (And, curiously, he is overseeing a trimming, a leaning of the military budget). Profiles of the President as he prepared to ensconce himself in the Oval Office often painted a portrait of a master collaborator, a peacemaker with an uncanny ability to achieve a confluence among diverse, contrasting opinions while at the Harvard Law Review and, more recently, of his intellectual fixation with Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals (And, ancillary to that, the President's curious relationship with his former rival, now Secretary Clinton).

President Obama's Presidency, of course, can only be properly construed through the prism of Lincon's Presidency. The global economic crisis is Obama's war between the states. President Obama is intuitively smart about the opposition he faces in trimming the military budget. Not a small amount of the opposition the President faces are the same people who attend tea parties and fear that their automatic weopons will be snatched by marauding ATF agents. Then again, President Bush's Oedipal "Daddy Fixation" was not, to be sure, a net positive, notwithstanding America's cult of the tough guy, rooted, organically, in the cowboys and the history of the American Southwest. Obama is acutely conscious of the importance of the Southwest to a future Democratic majority. It has been opined that had hometown hero and US Senator John McCain not been the GOP nominee, Obama might have won Arizona in 2008. And the curious choice of former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano for Homeland Security was not, we cannot fail to note, entirely devoid of political calculations about the Southwest frontier.

The President's trip to Latin America, in its departure from Bush era "hard power" seems, on the face of it "soft," but, in fact, it is an exercises in "Smart Power" -- an amalgam of the two -- elucidated by Hillary Clinton during her Senate confirmation hearings in January. In choosing then-Senator -- considered a foreign policy Centrist who was a quick study on the Senate Armed Services Committee -- Obama, was setting the groundwork for something other than a pure iteration of "soft power," thus confounding the GOP and governing from the Center.

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